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Ellen Carter Woodbridge - Mentor Teacher

By: Ellen Carter Woodbridge (2002)

Disability Support ServicesThe George Washington University Washington, D.C.Explore DC

Thoughts on teaching & learning

The most important thing is not to have preconceptions about students. Learn as much as possible about each one. Meet them early, the summer before they begin a university program of studies, if possible. Involve the student in designing the program they would like to have. Focus on their strengths and interests while you help them with their areas of weakness. Be flexible.

Button link to George Washington University website
Quad at George Washington University

Each week LD OnLine gets questions from parents of high school students who are getting ready to begin college. Both parents of students with LD and/or ADHD and the students themselves worry that the needed support services many not be there. This month LD visits a university program that works with students with LD and/or ADHD.

We met with, Ellen Carter Woodbridge, a learning specialist, in the Disability Support services at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. In 1999 she brought her skills to the Disability Seaport Services (DSS) program at GWU.

Ellen began working at GW in 1983 as an instructor in the English Department, and then became the Assistant Academic Coordinator for the Athletic Department. She is currently a learning specialist at DSS, assisting students with writing, study skills and efficient reading techniques. She received her BA from the Center for the Arts at Antioch College and her MA from the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.

Ellen has extensive training and experience working with

GWU classroom

students on a one to one basis. For many years she worked with the GWU collegiate athletic program developing models of instruction and tutoring that would foster academic success. She ran tutoring programs, studying sessions, writing workshops, and actively worked with faculty to make certain needed academic goals were achieved.

How many students are in your program?

We currently have about 500 registered students in our program. Approximately 300 have learning disabilities. Many students elect not to disclose their disability when applying to a university. Others do disclose the disability but fail to register for support services. Services are available free of charge to students with documented LD and/or ADHD.

Most university programs have a range of accommodations that are available to students with LD. DSS offers note taking services, readers, tutors, adaptive technology, extended time for tests, and learning/writing services.

Do you have staff that can really help students with learning disabilities and/or ADHD achieve academic success?

Our staff has received training about how to work with students with a full range of disabilities. For students with LD and/or ADHD we have found that the greatest weakness is often in learning how to organize time and in organizing writing assignments. Our staff of learning and writing specialists has extensive experience in teaching writing to students of all ages and backgrounds, and are well prepared to assist students with time management and study skills. We also have a staff member who works throughout the semester to make certain students have access to books on tape. This service is available to all students who have a learning disability that interferes with their ability to readily gain knowledge from the written page. We also have trained staff who run support groups for our students. These monthly sessions are not required but they are usually well attended.

In addition to all of the services that I have just talked about which are provided at no additional cost to all students with documented disabilities, we have an extensive list of resources to which we can refer students. DSS does not provide content tutoring but most departments within the university have a list of tutors who are trained to help students who are having difficulty in courses. The Peer Tutoring Service also offers tutoring for $8-15 an hour. If the emotional problems that may go hand in hand with LD and/or ADHD surface, we have a student counseling center on our campus to refer them to. Here again, the fee for the use of the services is very low. We also have an extensive list of licensed professionals in the Washington, DC Metropolitan area who we know work successfully with college students with LD and/or ADHD.

Parents often ask us to work with the student and with specific faculty members of classes in which the student is not achieving successfully. If the student's grades do not improve parents call us to ask us to intervene on the student's behalf.Unless we have the student's permission to have a conversation and/or conference with the professor, we cannot. Fortunately, most of our students welcome a working partnership which includes the student, the professor, the DSS learning specialist and support from home.

The reason we cannot intervene in most cases is that students who arrive at a university are generally over 18 years of age. By law these students are considered to be adults. This means that parents and faculty alike must respect the student's rights to make decisions about disclosure and the type of help they will or will not seek.

Are faculty at the university trained to work with students with LD and/or ADHD?

Most university programs that have extensive programs in place to help students with LD and/or ADHD also offer informational workshops for the faculty. Our program works to try to bring awareness of the needs of students with disabilities to the faculty of all the schools, both undergraduate and graduate. To do that we provide training sessions once a year to which all faculty are invited. We have presented sessions on the legal aspects of providing disability support services, about how LD and/or ADHD are diagnosed so that faculty can understand the nature of these disabilities, and sessions on how to accommodate different disabilities in the classroom. These sessions are generally well attended and we encourage faculty to suggest ideas for future presentations.

When a student has disclosed his LD and/or ADHD to a specific faculty member we can work with that instructor on a more individual basis to help develop accommodations that will work for the individual student's learning needs. It is important here to recall that the student must take the initiative of first making the faculty member aware of the needed accommodations. We have also worked with other departments of the university to produce training materials for faculty. One of those is a The Race Inside My Head, a video produced by Christy Willis, the GWU DSS director. In this video students discuss how it feels to have ADHD. Students also discuss what types of accommodations and support they need from professors. To view parts of this video click here (Real Player required.)

Sometimes, faculty will refer an at risk-student to our office. In such situations we will do a basic screening of the student's academic problems. If it seems that an undiagnosed learning disability and/or ADHD we will refer the student to a private practitioner for evaluation. If that evaluation reveals a learning disability and/or ADHD we can then work more effectively with both the student and the referring professor. The decision to come to our office and to engage in assessment to determine if a disability does exist, however, remains with the individual student.

In addition this past year we brought online an extensive Web site that helps both faculty and students.

What can I do as a parent if I really know my son or daughter is failing or not keeping up with the classwork?

The best strategies are preventative. This means working with your son or daughter while they are still in high school. Students need to be able to articulate the nature and impact of their disabilities. They need to develop strong self-advocacy skills and be honest with themselves if they are having trouble in a course. Students that expect their parents to solve all of their problems in high school often come to college waiting for help from the professor or our office. Too often they wait until the end of a semester to ads for help and then want the professor to provide accommodations or extra credit so that they can "pass" the course. Professors are not obligated to go back to allow a student to redo assignments (although the student may have had this option in high school). Requests to do extra credit at the end of the semester also often cannot be met since faculty must offer the same options to all the students in their class and in a large class of undergraduates this is not going to be realistic. This does not mean that we may not be able to help at even such a late date but our options become significantly fewer. In rare instances a student may be able to drop a course late in the semester. This is a very expensive option since tuition is not refunded for courses dropped late in the semester. Thus the best approach is preventative.

Self-advocacy skills, once learned, also need to be applied. The student needs to talk with the professors early in the semester, at the first class or during the professors first office hours, to clearly explain the nature of his or learning needs and to help the professor understand what types of accommodations will be needed.

We worked so hard to get him/her to this point. We are so worried about the label. Is it better to let my son or daughter come to college without the accommodations?

We recommend that students with disabilities register with us when they first come to GW. That way the supports and accommodations are in place if they choose to use them. No student is identified to a professor without first giving us permission to do so. Most other students do not know that another student has a learning disability or ADHD. They will only become aware if the student discloses the disability to them. In our program we can work with professors individually and confidentially. For example, a student with a learning disability may have a very difficult time taking notes. We would include a request for a note taker in the student's accommodation letter to her professor. The professor would make an announcement in class, asking any student interested in being a note taker for his class to call or email Disability Support Services. We would interview and hire the student note taker, who would drop off the notes at our office each week. The student note taker would know the recipient of the notes only if the student chose to identify or introduce herself to the note taker.

My son or daughter says no one has ever come to help him or her work with the professors. S/he knows the reason for the low grades is the professor's real lack of understanding of LD. I called the professor. The professor said they could not discuss the types of accommodations that my student needs with me. As a parent I need to know how to approach the professor so that my son or daughter gets the needed help.

In compliance with federal regulations (the ADA and Section 504), a student must document his or her disability and request accommodation. At the university level we come back to the issue of making the request for accommodations the student's responsibility. Once the student has registered with our office, it still is his or her responsibility to make the professor aware of the individual needs. With permission, we prepare a letter for the student to provide to the professor to help make this process smoother. Since federal law defines rights of privacy, faculty and staff may not discuss your son's or daughter's progress with you without his or her permission.

Is there a book that you would recommend that can help students with LD and/or ADHD find the program that is best for them?

In general we do not make such recommendations. Students have already completed the process of selecting a college. For parents and students looking to the future we would suggest the K & W College Guide. When using such guides it is important to still take the time to contact the specific program that is of interest. Summaries may not give you all the information that you will need to help make the important decision about which university program to attend.

Other resources

AHEAD: The Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD) is an international, multicultural organization of professionals committed to full participation in higher education for persons with disabilities.

HEATH: The HEATH Resource Center of The George Washington University, Graduate School of Education and Human Development, is the national clearinghouse on postsecondary education for individuals with disabilities. Support from the US Department of Education enables the clearinghouse to serve as an information exchange about educational support services, policies, procedures, adaptations, and opportunities at American campuses, vocational-technical schools, and other postsecondary training entities.

K & W Guide to College for Students with Learning Disabilities or Attention Deficit Disorder (5th Edition) Marybeth Kravets and Imy Wax, 800 pages 6th edition (September 11, 2001).

Peterson's Education Center: Peterson's is the leader in college guides. This site is a central clearinghouse for education reference information. You will need to sign in to use this center.

Summer precollege programs

More articles and information on transitions to college from LD OnLine InDepth.

The Race in My Head /ADD complete video program is available from AHEAD.

Faculty Attitudes and Practices Regarding Students with Disabilities: Two Decades After Implementation of Section 504.

Photo collage of GWU

Photos by The George Washington University. Used with permission.

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